Stocking a spice cabinet can be a little overwhelming, simply for the reason that there are so many spices out there. It may be tempting to stock up on every exciting seasoning in sight, but these things do have an expiration date, and you can end up with a cabinet full of flavourless, expensive powders that need to be replaced.
Photo by Aimee Plesa.
Chicken breasts are not very exciting, but they are a versatile protein with a pretty healthy image, and for that reason people tend to buy and cook a lot of them. Unfortunately, their lopsided, teardrop shape makes them a pain to cook well, and one can end up with a piece of meat that is juicy but flavourless on one end, and dry and charred on the other.
But nobody likes bland food, and there are a few spices that I recommend everyone have on hand. Once you have these basics, you can supplement with the other spices that routinely come up in your favourite recipes.
- Salt: Salt makes other flavours pop. Get a box of Kosher salt for cooking and a box of Maldon for finishing.
- Pepper: Skip the pre-ground stuff and get a grinder with whole black or rainbow peppercorns. (Extra credit: Get another one with white peppercorns for times when you need to increase the funk.)
- Cinnamon: You'll need whole sticks for infusions and teas, and ground for baking and sprinkling into savoury dishes. It may sound weird, but adding a pinch of cinnamon to my beef stew changed my life.
- Whole nutmeg: Freshly ground nutmeg is my "secret ingredient" in a whole slew of recipes. Yes, it's great in baked goods, but it's also fantastic in any sort of cheesy dish and pairs well with hearty meats and starchy vegetables. I also love it grated directly onto a rum cocktail.
- Ground cayenne: Cayenne pepper is a versatile heat-bringer used in a variety of cuisines, and just a pinch can add a nice kick to a vat of beans or take your spice rub up a notch.
- Paprika: Paprika is the bright red pungent powder you may have seen on top of devilled eggs. Paprika can be mild, sweet or hot, but it should always be Hungarian. Beyond devilled eggs, you can use it to finish any dish that needs a bit of pungency, or use it in spice rubs, marinades and dressings.
- Cumin: I am obsessed with cumin and it's sweet, earthy, warm flavour. It makes meaty dishes taste "complete", and absolutely sings in both Tex-Mex and curries alike. When I taste a dish and think it needs "an extra something", that something is usually cumin.
- Dried thyme: Fresh herbs are great when you can get them, but you should enjoy thyme's woodsy flavour all year round. It's a staple in Mediterranean and Italian cooking, and adds subtle flavour to a whole slew of savoury dishes.
- Dried oregano: Like thyme, oregano has year-round applications, and my spaghetti sauce wouldn't be the same with out it.
- Bay leaves: Bay leaves are like the perfect back up singer, and provide harmony without being distracting. Their subtle, savoury and vaguely medicinal flavour makes rice, soups and stews taste better without making them taste like much at all.
- Crushed red chilli flakes: Made from a blend of dried, crushed chillies, these spicy little guys add a slightly fruity spiciness to anything you sprinkle them on, such as pizza, pizza or pizza. (I also use them in my marinated mushrooms, but c'mon, we all know crushed red chilli is made for pizza.)
Of course, spice cabinets will vary from person to person, depending on the type of cuisines one cooks, and that's a beautiful thing. What spices can you absolutely not live without, and what have you found to be skippable?
This is part of The Grown Up Kitchen, Lifehacker's series designed to answer your most basic culinary questions and fill in any gaps that may be missing in your home chef education.